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Could a rentquake topple Trump?

Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

May 2, 2019   3 mins

Four more years for Donald Trump? I wouldn’t bet my house against it. The field of Democrats vying to challenge him is not without interest, but the challengers are yet to generate unstoppable momentum. Indeed, the early indications are that Joe Biden may win the contest by default. For all the buzz surrounding youthful politicians like Pete Buttigieg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (too young to even run this time), 2020 is set to be a contest between two men in their seventies. As Sarah Palin once asked, how’s that hopey-changey thing working out for you?

And yet the Democrats might just have a means to pull off a decisive victory – a trump card, so to speak.

It’s an appeal to a group of voters that often gets overlooked in our obsession with identity politics: people who rent their homes.

In the New York Times, Emily Badger reminds us that housing tenancy is an important predictor of voting behaviour:

“… in 2016… [renters] favored Hillary Clinton by 28 points (homeowners preferred Donald J. Trump by 11 points).”

She adds that renters “heavily overlap with key Democratic constituencies, including younger adults, African-Americans and Hispanics, and urban residents”. So one might wonder why Democrats would target voters who they can and sometimes do take for granted.

Two reasons: firstly, there is plenty of room to improve voter turnout among renters, which, in 2016 was “about 12 percentage points lower than that of homeowners”; and, secondly, because there are practical things that politicians can do to help renters in return for their support – such as cracking down on abusive landlords and getting more houses built. This would mean much more to excluded, marginalised people than any amount of rhetoric picked up from the woke studies department of an Ivy League university.

According to Emily Badger “several Democratic candidates for president are now approaching renters in a way they’ve seldom been treated before – as a voting bloc”:

“Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, senators from some of the most expensive housing markets in the country, have proposed substantial bills to alleviate the housing crisis. They’re not talking in gauzy terms about homeownership, the rare housing topic that usually gets a nod. They see unsustainable, raw-deal, skyrocketing rents, and they’re not hesitant to sermonize about it.”

It’s possible that someone in the Democratic firmament has been paying attention to what happened in the 2017 UK general election. It was called by Theresa May in the expectation of greatly increasing the Conservative majority. In the event, the Conservative vote share went up by 5.5%, but Jeremy Corbyn increased the Labour share by 9.6% – not quite enough to win, but more than enough to wipe out the Tory majority and reduce the May government to minority status.

The mainstream commentariat pronounced it a shock result, but Team Corbyn had made their strategy clear all along – they would motivate habitual non-voters to turn out by offering the prospect of real change. And, just like the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum, it worked (though a Conservative campaign of dazzling ineptitude played a significant part in its success).

But who were these newly-motivated Labour voters? Because of a few notable results in university towns like Canterbury, it was assumed that Tory hopes had been shattered by a so-called ‘youthquake’ of the youngest voters. But according to the pollster Matt Singh (writing here for Bloomberg), closer examination reveals a somewhat different cause:

“We’ve since learned from the British Election Study (BES)… that the surge in turnout was not really a youth thing. New analysis of the BES data reveals that the bulk of the increase in turnout, along with the entirety of the swing from the Conservatives to Labour, was attributable to people who rent rather than own their home. The youthquake was in fact a rentquake.”

Is a ‘rentquake’ about to hit American politics too?

There’s a passage in the New York Times article that sums up the frustration of Americans stuck in the rent trap:

“What’s changed is not just the cost of rent itself, said Andrew Criscione, a 30-year-old renter in Boston. Rather, he said, people of his generation increasingly fear that annual rent increases aren’t the product of a bubble soon to burst, but that this is their indefinite reality.”

US Republicans and UK Conservatives alike should be terrified that so many people feel they’ve been permanently excluded from the dream of a property owning democracy – especially given that this bloc now includes workers on salaries that were once sufficient to secure a place on the housing ladder.

GOP and Tory politicians should be straining every sinew to tackle the root causes of the housing crisis, and to make allies not enemies of ‘generation rent’. They should ignore the whispered lies of the rentier class – which lives off income generated by property – and ask themselves which of the following their older, home-owning core supporters care more about: the housing needs of their own children and grandchildren or the profit margins of professional landlords?

If conservatives stop caring about the transmission of opportunity down the generations, then they will fully deserve the heavy defeats heading their way.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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